In May 2019, Seton Hill alumna Sara Tantlinger won the Bram Stoker Award for her original work: “The Devil’s Dreamland: Poetry Inspired by H.H. Holmes” (Strangehouse Books). Michael Arnzen, Ph.D. professor of English and Sara’s former thesis mentor, presented the award to her. Prior to winning the Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Poetry, Sara earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature and creative writing and her master’s degree in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill. Additionally, Sara is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association (SPFA), a poetry editor for the Oddville Press, a college instructor, and the co-founder of the Horror Writers Association’s Pittsburgh Chapter.
Recently, I had the opportunity to get in touch with Sara to discuss her experience at Seton Hill, her creative process, the horror genre, her upcoming anthology, and tips for up-and-coming horror writers. Here’s what she had to say:
What made you decide to come to Seton Hill as an undergrad?
My sister attended Seton Hill before me, so it was an early point of interest since she enjoyed her English classes. In addition, I knew I wanted to major in English literature. I was interested in the different backgrounds of the English faculty. The Hogwarts vibe I got from visiting the campus definitely helped finalize the decision!
What made you return for the Writing Popular Fiction master’s program?
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to attend graduate school, but I spoke with a faculty member who teaches in the Writing Popular Fiction program and was convinced to apply. I was thrilled to get accepted and I have never looked back. The program was one of my favorite experiences ever. I learned so much, made lifelong friends, and greatly improved my creative writing skills in the process.
What was your favorite course in the Writing Popular Fiction graduate program?
A few of my favorite topics were worldbuilding, learning more about querying publishers and agents, creating dread and suspense, and tactics for dealing with the moments when the words just won’t seem to come. The program is filled with such talented instructors and mentors who continue to inspire me.
Do you happen to teach any courses at Seton Hill?
Yes! I usually teach Composition and Culture, but this past spring I had a really fun creative writing class that focused on popular fiction across the genres. I absolutely loved teaching that one!
What helps drive your creative process?
Since I mainly write horror, I find inspiration in everything: the news, society, culture, fairy tales, nature, mythology, history and so on. Right now, I am working on a couple projects, but two are rooted in historical horror and one is heavily influenced by how terrifying nature can be when it brings us disaster.
Are there any aspects of life that inspire your stories?
To me, the world is an endless place of inspiration, so I look forward to tackling new barriers every time I write. After all, horror is about breaking down boundaries and exploring the things that others might not dare to explore.
How often do you encounter writer’s block? What do you do to get past it?
I try to think of writer’s block as nothing more than my refusal to write or my procrastination with something. Doing that allows me to address why I am struggling to get words down on the page. When I encounter these issues, I like to take a walk or go do something else and just brainstorm where I want the work in progress to go. Often, I find that once my idea grows stronger and more interesting, I am more inspired to get the words flowing.
Can you provide me with any hints about what your next project, “Not All Monsters,” is about?
I am so excited for “Not All Monsters” to make its debut next year! It’s an anthology set for a fall 2020 release with Strangehouse Books, and is my first venture into editing an anthology. The open call was for women who wrote speculative fiction, so the book is entirely filled with amazing women in horror who have created breathtaking, terrifying, unique stories. While horror is making strides to be more inclusive and diverse, it is still dominated by men. With “Not All Monsters,” we wanted to highlight the hardworking women in the genre. I received hundreds of wonderful submissions, and narrowing down the table of contents was difficult, but I am immensely proud to share the 21 chosen stories next year!
Do you have any advice for up-and-coming horror writers?
Write the story you want to write, and don’t be afraid to push boundaries. Horror is a great chance to walk into the unknown and learn something about your own fears. The genre is very evocative and can be used to create dread and suspense, but it can also be used to tell a tale of survival. Sometimes people think horror is all about blood and gross-out scenes, but there is a huge array of horror out there. Sometimes it is the quiet, creeping horror that stays with us the longest.
Photos, from top: Sara, fourth from left, with other Bram Stoker Award winners; a close-up of Sara's award